Bill Clinton tweeted that the immigrant children separated from their parents at the southwest border “should not be a negotiating tool,” as indeed they are. Clinton would know better than most; he too dealt with Republicans’ attempt to use children as a bargaining chip to create harsher immigration laws.
During the former president’s administration, California Republican members of the House of Representatives pushed for a new immigration law to include a provision allowing states to refuse to educate undocumented immigrant children in public schools. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the Republican candidate for president, both pushed the idea. At one point, the House voted 257 to 163 to not only bar new undocumented immigrant children from registering for school, but also to let states dismiss those already enrolled. In the end, Clinton fended off that provision, but a month before his reelection, he signed a law that became a landmark on the road toward criminalizing immigration.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 created broad new categories of crimes, many of them minor, for which immigrants were to be automatically deported. It imposed “expedited” review of asylum requests, which essentially denied rights recognized under international law. It barred “sanctuary” policies that a number of cities and states had, including San Francisco, New Mexico, and New York, leading Mayor Rudy Giuliani to sue the federal government, unsuccessfully.
As the U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops put it in Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, a joint 2003 pastoral letter:
In 1996, the U.S. Congress eviscerated due process rights for migrants with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which authorizes the detention and deportation of migrants for relatively minor offenses, even after they have served their sentences. IIRIRA has caused the unjust separation of untold numbers of immigrant families. We urge the U.S. Congress to revisit this law and to make appropriate changes consistent with due process rights.
The bishops said that “Alarmingly, migrants often are treated as criminals by civil enforcement authorities.”
Now, Congress is gearing up to pass an even tougher immigration law. If throwing children out of school was the Republican bargaining chip in 1996, President Donald Trump now ups the ante by taking children away from their parents and detaining them. “Now is the best opportunity ever for Congress to change the ridiculous and obsolete laws on immigration. Get it done, always keeping in mind that we must have strong border security,” Trump tweeted on June 19.